Local Car Designers That Made It Big

South Africa’s long been on the map for its vibrant automotive industry featuring local assembly of most of the world’s major car brands. But what’s less well-known is that quite a few of those international brand offerings have been shaped by South African-born designers. SentiMETAL takes a look at the talent that flowed from our shores.

BY: Graeme Hurst

FASTEST CAT IN THE WORLD

Jaguar XJ220

There aren’t many car designers around today who can boast a career shaped by the founder of a great company. But former Jaguar stylist Keith Helfet certainly can: he spent over two decades with the famous Coventry carmaker, presenting his ideas – both as scale models and in the metal – on a weekly basis to then retired company boss Sir William Lyons before the great man’s passing in 1985.

Keith is well-known for his stylist’s role in the creation of the sensational XJ220 supercar that was built to take on Ferrari’s F40 and Porsche’s 959 and which was unveiled just three years later but what’s less-known is that his road to the famous English sports car maker began in the Cape.

Raised in Cape Town, Keith studied mechanical engineering by day as a youngster but by night he pursued a love of car design (and a talent for working directly in 3D) by rebodying a crashed Triumph Spitfire in his parents garage. The resultant shape involved 700lbs of Plaster of Paris and was good enough to later earn him a place at London’s Royal College of Art. And, of course, a position at Jaguar where he worked on the XJ41 convertible, the sports car spinoff of the XJ40, and styled the XK180 and F-type concepts.

Keith later branched out into aircraft interiors and medical equipment before penning the lines for the still-born Joule, SA’s first electric car.  

KAROO ROOTS UNDER GERMANY’S FINEST

Driven (or even just sat inside) the latest Audi A4? How about an Audi R8 or Porsche Carrera GT (yes, we can all dream…) or indeed any of the latest products from the VW Group? If your answer’s yes then you’ve interacted with the design language of Oona Scheepers, a South African who was raised in the small town of Prieska but ended up carving out a significant career as an interior stylist in the bright lights of Wolfsburg. 

Oona qualified as a graphic designer at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in the mid ’80s. Soon after, she moved to the UK to work and later on to Germany after her husband took up a position there. She worked as a freelance designer in the automotive industry before her talents led to a permanent position in Porsche’s design department in ’97.

Rose amongst the thorns - Oona and the rest of the Porsche Carrera GT design team

Seven years later she headed up Audi’s design, colour and trim section before taking on the responsibility for the overall design, colour and trim features of the entire Volkswagen Group with the interior of the spectacular Carrera GT considered a particular highpoint in her career.

TWO-WHEELED DESIRE

Ask any petrolhead for their dream motorcycle and chances are Ducati will be at the top of their list (with the exception of Harley Davidson if they’re on the cusp of a mid-life crisis). And it’s easy to see why: the famous Italian brand is the two-wheeled equivalent of Ferrari in terms of both performance and design.

Photo credit: Pierre Terblanche

What’s less-known is that the lines of those exquisite shapes came from the pen of Pierre Terblanche who started his design career in advertising in Cape Town before completing a Masters in Transport Design at the Royal College of Art in London. A stint at VW designing Golf interiors followed before he moved to various Italian design studios employed by Ducati.

Just over 20 years ago Pierre became the brand’s Director of Design before leaving to work as an independent design consultant. During his career he shaped some of the motorcycle brand’s most iconic designs including the 2002-launched 999 which was the successor to the multi World Championship-winning 916.

AN F1 CAR FOR THE ROAD

Automotive history has been shaped by standout models and while the Ford Model T may have shaped mass production and the VW Beetle mass consumerism, few supercars have made an impact as much as McLaren’s formidable F1 road car.

Photo credit Gordon Murray Design

Widely revered as one of the most driver-focussed cars ever to be licensed for the road (it famously has a central driving position), the naturally aspirated, BMW-powered carbon fibre F1 (launched in 1992) was so potent it coined the term ‘hypercar’. And it came off the drawing board of our own Gordon Murray who cut his design teeth building a race car (the IGM Ford) here in SA in the late 1960s before taking a job with Brabham in the UK. 

That was in 1969 and, over the next 22 years, the Durban-born lad designed cars that took several GP wins and delivered two Driver’s Championships for Nelson Piquet. And some radical racing technology, including the controversial BT46 ‘fan car’ which used a colossal rear-mounted fan to create ground effect. Gordon moved to McLaren in the late 1980s, where his designs helped to deliver four consecutive Driver’s and Constructor’s titles.

And, although his idea for a centrally steered performance car stemmed from a childhood dream, it was a doodle on a piece of paper while waiting for a flight home from the Italian GP back in 1988 that sowed the seeds for the spectacular and peerless F1. The final exterior and interior design was the work of Brit Peter Stevens.

Fast-forward three decades and Gordon heads up a thriving design consultancy which recently revealed plans for his T.50…a Brabham BT46 fan car-inspired spiritual successor to the F1.

SA’S FIRST HOMEGROWN EXPORT

Of course, South Africa’s input in the car styling field hasn’t been limited to designing products but actually developing them for production, both here and abroad. That’s the case with the GSM Dart – SA’s first production sports car. GSM stood for Glass Sport Motors and the Dart was launched in September 1957.

Photo credit: GSM Dart - The Real GSM Story

It was the brainchild of Bob van Niekerk, Willie Meissner and Verster de Wit. The talented trio of Saffas actually joined forces while working in the UK in 1956. Bob – a Stellenbosch-qualified mechanical engineer – had long held a dream to build his own sports car and teamed up with friend Willie who had a natural affinity for all things mechanical.

GSM Dart

The pair met designer Verster (then employed by The Rootes Group) by chance and engaged him to help style a two-seater shape suitable for fibreglass construction – a then-new technology that massively lowered production costs. The group styled a scale model (in the lounge of Bob’s Earls Court flat nogal!) before building a full-size buck to create a mould, which was shipped back to Cape Town where the Dart was produced.

The pretty sportster boasted a tubular chassis and adapted Ford mechanicals. Its lightweight and nimble handling brought it huge success on the track. Some 116 were built, along with the 128 of the Flamingo – an even prettier closed-cockpit variant – before production costs led to both models’ demise in ’65. The Dart was also assembled in the UK where trademark regulations saw it badged as the GSM Delta.

THE PLASTIC FLOWER

Protea 1 with John Myers at the wheel.

While the GSM Dart has long enjoyed a reputation as SA’s first homegrown car it technically wasn’t: the GRP Protea beat it by six months. GRP stood for Glass Reinforced Plastic and the Protea was the brainchild of gifted auto engineer John Myers.

He teamed up with Bob Fincher and Dr Alec Roy in the mid ’50s. They set up in Booysens Reserve and – as with the GSM Dart’s founders – elected to use fibreglass for the body in the interests of viability. Operating on a shoestring (John slept in the workshop), the group had to experiment heavily to perfect the formula for the resin to create the bodies with John often diving for cover when the mixture over heated!

And as with the Dart, the Protea’s Jaguar D-type inspired pretty body was mated to a tubular steel chassis using proprietary Ford parts. It was launched at the Rand Spring Motor Show in ’57 and campaigned successfully on the track. Sadly, a hefty £100 customs tax on each car torpedoed the project’s future; just 20 examples were made in various forms (including aluminium) before GRP closed up shop after 18 months.

But it wasn’t the end. Fast forward six decades and one local enthusiast is in the process of building one from scratch, much to the delight of now 98-year-old John Myers who was amused to hear that the design for his chassis was subjected to sophisticated structural analysis by a local university. “In my day I put the chassis on bricks and went outside and asked two hefty looking labourers to please jump up and down on each end to see if the chassis would crack and it passed the test just fine!”

* Note that we omitted racing car designers (such as Rory Byrne) from the list as they will be the subject of a future, separate article.


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